I'm pleased to announce the opening of Xenoformer, an exhibition of paintings and drawings in the AAHD Gallery at the University of Notre Dame. The show runs until Feb 17th, with an opening reception this Friday (Feb 2nd) from 5-7pm.
"[...] it amounted to a form of terraforming, as it would have been called in Twentieth century science fiction, but we might think of it more as “xenoforming.” There was even an infamous science fiction film of the 1980s that speculated capitalism was creating the appropriate environmental conditions for a species of alien that would come to dominate all life on earth, but even this got it a bit wrong. We weren’t creating the environment for aliens, we were creating the alien itself . We were making the planet itself into something else. That’s still a hard pill to swallow for many people: how a place could become a thing. Really unsettles a foundational understanding of reality we humans have. We’re used to seeing ourselves existing as discrete, bounded entities located subjectively within a larger world...then we find out we’re divisible, tentative, particulate actors on and part of a thing. In a lot of ways, the movement this development paradoxically dealt the biggest blow to was environmentalism. Because there was no more environment...we could no longer point to a ‘world that surrounds us’, could no longer point to a passive ‘background’. It’s just this massive alien thing that we now have to figure out how to live with.”
- (name redacted), June 7th, 2156
Non-living matter has long been characterized in Western thought as inert and passive; raw material to be activated and manipulated by human beings. Fossil fuels, metals, minerals, and countless chemical compounds populate a list of geologically-derived substances that we
routinely treat as mere tools and substrates. Yet the passivity we take for granted is now in question: the multiplying anomalous emergences of climate mutation into the biosphere makes dimly palpable for humans a more uncanny world of dynamic, generative, and aggressively contagious materiality. Indeed, each day seems to bring to light a new horror: plastic rocks, gigantic sinkholes, massive pockets of methane gas, acidifying oceans, strange weather, resurrected pathogens.
One figure through which to think this troubling, dark vibrance at the heart of planetary geology is that of the toxic chemical--its disrespect for boundaries, its extreme reactivity, its existence as unintended bi-product or undetected intruder. At stake here is not only the critical question of how humans conceive of nonhuman agency, but whether we continue the kinds of thinking which condition our current, unsustainable participation on Earth. As a prolonged metaphysical imagining of new pictures of the inorganic and the geologic, particularly in its toxic, unruly forms, I investigate notions of matter as being fundamentally weird, revealing an inhuman planetary sphere that acts in accordance with its own mystifying agenda--resistant to full human conceptualization and instrumentalization. The critical question that continues to arise through
my work is: how do humans relate to these larger, stranger material systems of which we are inextricably a part?
I'm very excited to announce the opening of THAW, an exhibition featuring the work of Adam Benjamin Fung, Amy Sacksteder, and myself. This will be the first exhibition I've put together/curated from the ground up. Read on for more info!
The world is changing, warming, mutating. Weather patterns shift and grow unpredictable. Glaciers disappear and snow fails to accumulate; permafrost liquefies for the first time in an epoch. The part humans have played in this undeniable change is more and more evident on a daily basis. Yet, not only do human societies and institutions seem incapable of responding adequately to the situation, many are unable to even think the changes that are now shaping the future of life on this planet. The becoming-geological implied by the Anthropocene opens up a view on a human relationship with the Earth that has transmuted into something unrecognizable.
THAW attempts to bring together artists whose work touches on the wildly divergent consequences of the Anthropocene and climate change--those attempting, in their own fragmentary ways, to meet the demand climate change poses to human thought: the loss associated not only with melting ice caps and glaciers, with the destruction of habitats and the altering of coastlines; but the loss of geological and ecological naivete, the loss of narratives of human control of the environment, and the end of the belief that human beings stand apart from the world they live in. French theorist Bruno Latour refers to global warming as ‘climate mutation’, perhaps a more apt term: implying not only an unpredictable future on this planet’s surface, but one potentially more strange than any current model can predict. The works included in this exhibition contribute new dimensions to the visual imaginary of a world irreversibly altered in the Anthropocene: some through quiet and spare contemplation of intimately linked networks, others registering the incoherence, acceleration, and fractured scales of this mutating world.
In his review of Jeff Vandermeer’s 2017 novel Borne, Steven Shaviro writes
The Anthropocene means that “we” (human beings) have irreversibly altered the entire biosphere; but it also means that, in doing so, we have exposed ourselves, more fully and more nakedly than ever before, to the geological and biological forces that respond to us in ways that we cannot anticipate or control.
Through the work of visual artists Adam Fung, Lucas Korte, and Amy Sacksteder, THAW attempts to further the recognition of those geological and biological forces, to reckon with an Earth that does not exist totally ‘for us’, as well as what it means to seriously contend with such a realization. Paintings, drawings, video and installation act as indexes for prolonged thinking about this melting, mutating ground we walk on.
The show will open Thursday Sept 21st with a reception from 5:30-7:30pm and run until Nov 17th. The Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture is located at 1045 W. Washington St. South Bend IN, 46601
The following originally appeared in the written portion of my MFA thesis. I have plans to continue publicizing the writing from this project as the process of writing, along with visual investigation, continues to be central to the mode of inquiry here.
An important aspect of scientific thinking is the commitment to a mind-independent reality1. In order to take the claims of science seriously, in the spirit in which they are stated, one must assume that those things in the universe which science attempts to describe are really real, and have their existence independent of human observers and human conceptions. Steven Shaviro makes the case that science then moves forward through a ‘negotiation with nonhumans’ rather than through the imposition of human will2. In order to explore the elusive, subterranean recesses of materiality, it is necessary to form a complicit relationship with matter itself--allying with a nonorganic intermediary to probe the abyss of the nonorganic. We require a xenoscope.
In the erratic architecture of this xenoscope, an issue for the human petitioner emerges: the xenoscope does not perceive the universe in a way that resembles human perception. There may be some baseline similarities such as the detection of electromagnetic waves. This means that visuality may be a commonality, but here operates as a lowest-common denominator. There would be much in the perceptual array of the xenoscope that simply does not overlap with the human visual experience, even allowing that the two agents both perceive in a primarily visual manner (which they likely don’t). Some trivial examples: humans do not perceive in infrared or ultraviolet, nor do they perceive x-rays. Perhaps the xenoscope is capable of these things. Perhaps it is
capable of registering the presence of electromagnetic waves in ways wholly different from the (phenomenological and meaning-making) structures of visuality we are familiar with3.
This raises a problem of translation. Any translation of information from the hypothetical xenoscope to the senses of the human petitioner will be, at best, partial. Not only that, but the information thus amenable to translation would itself be garbled in ways counter-intuitive to our habitual reception of sensory experiences. So, on the one hand we are closed off from the phenomenological world of the xenoscope, missing vast chunks of data that simply cannot be transformed comprehensibly to fit a corresponding human faculty; and on the other hand, we must twist and contort our usual ways of ‘reading’ the world in order to learn an altered, highly specialized way of interpreting new information. An example might be the practice of reading x-ray crystallography, historically used to identify the helical structure of DNA4. The casual observer would be unable to make any sense of the information presented by an x-ray crystallographic readout. Training is required before this practice can yield reliable information. In this case, one xenoscopic agent is the x-ray itself, which ‘detects’ or ‘perceives’ the world in a way radically different from any human perception. The training required to decipher a crystallographic image is yet another manifestation of the negotiation with nonhuman agents required by science.
A second problem is raised in light of the first: we must acknowledge that the xenoscope itself does, in fact, have a phenomenological world of its own. We must acknowledge the reality of an object-object perception mediating our own. The xenoscope will have its own perceptual agenda, it will experience a constellation of aesthetic seductions peculiar to it, it will probe the world on its own terms5. It is analogous to an embedded journalist in a blackout zone, investigating what draws it, capturing and translating its particular experiences, and reporting back what it deems fit to report-- and always utilizing the full length of its leash*. The human petitioner’s job is to gather up the scraps of data that we are lucky enough to have come through the filter of translation. Recognizing the primacy of the object-object relationship in this triad of perceived-perceiving intermediary-end perceiver opens us up to the reality that all of the relationships in this alliance are between objects6. The human being is the third object; the human is merely a variety of nonhuman7.
One last question is relevant here. If the theoretical xenoscope is designed and constructed by humans, how can we take seriously the above claims? A synthetic probe is of our making, a human extension, and therefore it exists for us, does it not? In reality, the synthetic probe indexes our negotiation with nonhumans at a more intense level8. First, in order to build a probe which explicitly does not perceive in a human manner, we must create something fundamentally unhuman. The radically unhuman character of the probe itself reveals the extent to which our own human technics are in fact unhuman at their root9. Not only do they (our technological objects) violate our intentions, thwart our will, take on unpredictable shapes, and contaminate across our rigid cultural boundaries, but they must be nonhuman from the beginning in order to extend us in any useful way. We cannot improve or extend human capacities by simply adding more ‘human’ to ourselves.
To acknowledge the object-object relationship between probe and universe is to acknowledge a fundamental unhumanness in the universe. To attempt to reinforce the boundary between human and nonhuman, to immunologically reify the unique ‘humanness’ of the probe by claiming it as a prosthetic (literally an extension of the human body) is to undo the intended intellectual work in the very same move--it is simply to parse the demarcation between human and nonhuman somewhere within the human body itself--it is to make the human body the next theatre for the promiscuous admixture between human and nonhuman10. There is no end to this problem of boundary placement because the humanist cartography cannot be permanently imposed on the universe: it will not afford boundaries of this kind. To acknowledge the probe as unhuman is to acknowledge the fundamental nature of thought as unhuman11.
The xenoscope is always unhuman and is always operating for itself.
*none of this is intended to unduly anthropomorphize the xenoscope. The example operates, as all useful anthropomorphizing does, to metaphorize a phenomenon that we have no linguistic or conceptual precedents for12. The xenoscope would not exhibit a human-like psychology, nor is it even likely to be alive. For all that, it does encounter the universe in its own way, and that way is primary for our purposes.
1 Discussions on the status of the claims of science, and arguments for accepting a mind-independent reality can be found in Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, (Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), as well as the introduction to Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
2 Steven Shaviro, “Arsenic Dreams,” E-Flux, 2015, http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/arsenic-dreams/
3 An extended argument for thinking through the ‘perceptions’ between nonhuman (particularly nonliving) agents can be found in Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to be a Thing, (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), particularly the chapter titled “Metaphorism.”
4 See Roman Kazantsev and Michelle Towles, “X-Ray Crystallography,” UC Davis Chemwiki, 2016, http://chemwiki.ucdavis.edu/Core/Analytical_Chemistry/Instrumental_Analysis/Diffraction/X-ray_Crystallography
5 Bogost, Alien Phenomenology.
6 This is one of the core tenets of Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, which is laid out in many of his books and lectures. A specific reference would be Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object, (Zero Books, 2011).
7 Eugene Thacker, “Black Infinity.”
8 This is a recurring theme in Steven Shaviro, “The Universe of Things,” in The Universe of Things.
9 Eugene Thacker, “Black Infinity.”
10 Thacker describes this intellectual move as ‘immunological’ in reference to this boundary-policing impulse, whether it be between the human and the nonhuman, the living and the nonliving, etc. See Eugene Thacker, “Biophilosophy for the 21st Century.”
11 Eugene Thacker, After Life.
25 See Bogost, Alien Phenomenology.
These are just some sketchy thoughts I've been beaning around for the last few months. It occurs to me that the most interesting aspect of Lovecraft's fiction, particularly his later fiction, is the deliberate nature of his reversal of the Aristotelian ontology of life and non-life which has generally been reinforced by Western thinking since the Enlightenment. This hierarchy is probably familiar: at the bottom is 'inert', 'passive' matter, next above matter is insensate but growing plant life, above plant life is sensate and animate animal life, and above that we find rational, creative, and communicative human life. One might include one more hierarchical tier within the realm of the human--namely the civilized, cultivated, and allegedly superior category of white, European humans who reside above the rest of humanity (in Western thinking).
My contention is that HPL turns this hierarchy on its head with quite a bit of exactitude. For example, the alien races who displace notions of human superiority are often taxonomically identified with forms of life generally deemed to be simple, primitive, and less advanced than human beings: the Great Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness are classified as plantlike, the Mi-Go of "The Whisperer in Darkness" are a combination of fungus and arthropod, the Deep Ones of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" are a combination of fish and amphibian, the Shoggoths of Mountains and "Shadow" are reminiscent of unicellular or amoebic protozoan life. Pushing farther out from the realm of the living into the realm of the Ancient Ones themselves, the alien god-entities of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos tend to exhibit anomalies of behavior and makeup which associate them with a weird, material quasi-life. Witness Cthulhu's plastic composition, the strange ultra-dimensionality of Yog-Sothoth, and the depiction of Azathoth as a nuclear chaos--associating this last most radically with a picture of matter itself as infernal, chaotic, capricious, potent, and terrifyingly willful yet mindless.
There is one more component of Lovecraft's cosmology: the 'degraded' nonwhite cultists who often play a crucial role in this fictional world. Many simply write off Lovecraft's descriptions of these 'mongrel races' as symptomatic of his virulent racism, and while correct, this yet ignores a deeper association at work: His positioning of nonwhites as associated with the nonhuman entities of his cosmology is intimately linked to his deliberate inversion of the Western cosmos. In fact, I think his work more clearly than much other speculative fiction, demonstrates how deeply implicated racist ideology is within the traditional structure of Enlightenment humanism. Consider that humanism, in its concentrated effort to define the human being, is structured by a necessarily exclusionary logic--in order to define what it is to be human, something must be considered not-human. Historically this meant many marginalized nonwhite groups were deemed not human, and even when finally included within an 'expanded' definition of the human race, are treated as less-than-human by the Western whites who historically controlled and disseminated such definitions.
Lovecraft demonstrates, literally through his own racism, and in conjunction with his conceptual reversal of Aristotelian hierarchy, how closely tied together is the conception of the nonhuman as subordinate to the human and the conception of nonwhite humans as subordinate to white humans. This logic of subordination is not only mirrored between the two lines of thought, but the hierarchy is literally continuous from bottom to top. Put explicitly, Lovecraft's cosmology as a one-to-one reversal of Aristotle goes as follows: cultivated, white Westerner at the bottom, mixed-race nonwhite cultist above him, alien (but recognizably living) invertebrate-like creature above the cultist, and radically material god-entity residing at the top.
A final word on the problematic logic of humanism: the problem with merely expanding the definition of the human to include more and more categories is that there's a limit to how much the category itself can contain. At the limit, it will either cease to have any definitional meaning (perhaps the best-case scenario), or a kind of conservative backlash will contract the definition and attempt to return the term to its 'pure', highly exclusionary original state (one could argue that this latter is a continuously present threat). In essence, what can be gained through humanism for human beings can be lost just as easily through the same humanist logic. It seems, therefore, the best we can do is attempt to disassemble the Western concept of the human. I think, interestingly, that Lovecraft's work points out the way, and that's where I take up his fiction in my own art.
As a final note, I certainly hope this is not read as a defense of HPL's racism. There is far too much of that brand of apologetics rampant in fan circles, but there is also far too much in the way of simplistic analysis which dismisses as racist anyone who doesn't loudly condemn Lovecraft's work in total. While the former is indefensible and repugnant, the latter, to me, is crass and disingenuous.
To inaugurate my decision to post sketchy thoughts, here's a good example of something I just thought about today and wanted to get down in writing before I forget it.
One of the criticisms often leveled at philosopher Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology is that his insistence that objects always 'withdraw' into their inner worlds, such that relation to other objects is always secondary, renders the ubiquity of entanglement between objects either unwieldy at best or somehow illusory at worst.
The interesting thing for me is that I find the problem of access in Harman's work to be one of the features that's really interesting since it tends to blanket the universe of things in a tantalizing epistemic darkness. However, 'withdrawnness' doesn't seem to give the right picture as it tends to reduce the universe to a collection of static objects separated by unbridgeable gulfs of emptiness. His notion of 'subterranean' aspects to objects which can't be accessed by perception of their surface features offers a somewhat more evocative analogy for the relations between objects, but falls just short of its potential. I might replace 'withdrawal' with 'excess'; pointing to the sheer voluminousness of materiality that always exceeds our perceptual and conceptual grasp.
To Harman's 'subterranean' aspects, I would also add 'extensive' aspects, such that the inner life of an object recedes both into itself but also extends away from the perceiving object.
My thoughts here are really incomplete and I'm probably off the mark, but rendering this notion of 'extensive recession' in terms of entanglement between objects would seem to suggest the possibility for a kind of spatial limit to our ability to limn the contours our own entanglement. Meaning, we can apprehend the disparate objects that compose, adhere to, and contaminate us, and follow them to a point, but eventually we reach a limit, where the sheer excessiveness of matter results in a thing's nature extending away from us beyond our grasp.
Here we are entangled, but there's a darkness at the horizon of our conceptual reach and a darkness within the tendrils of matter that enmesh and diffuse through our bodies.
Thought I would dump a couple of announcements here. 2015 is going to be a very busy year for me!
The project taking up most of my time right now is the book-format release of Der Trepanomikönen. I'm currently collating all the memoranda transmitted by the Trepidopterous...um...Disorgan(-ism?)(-ization?). Working as "their" pseudonym is a full-time task, I have to say. At any rate, independent publisher Are Not Books have picked me up and my collaboration with Matthew Smith, who runs the imprint, has been nothing short of excellent. The book should come out sometime this year, although it's difficult right now to pinpoint just when that will be, even down to the quarter.
I'll be contributing some images to a collaboration with Russian artist/writer Ilya Dolgov for his Forest Journal project. Expect more word on this collaboration and a number of others with my Russian friends soon!
I have a number of album cover commissions in the works as well, but for the time being I'll be keeping a lid on those. Announcements to come. Seems like the DeadSideOut sub-imprint is shaking the dust off yet again.
I'm in talks with faculty at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, who are planning a panel on new materialism to take place later this Spring. I'll be sitting on the panel with two other artists, my University of Notre Dame MFA colleague Joseph G. Cruz, as well as Nate Morgan from the University of Michigan. So far, the thinking is that the panel will address the diverse philosophies that fall under the label 'new materialism' as well as discuss the different ways artists are mobilizing these ideas or manipulating them in their work. I feel I provide a unique perspective because the most straightforward way to deal with materialism in studio arts is through material manipulation, i.e. sculpture. Visual artists like myself have a different relationship to these ideas in terms of how we phrase our concerns and how we explore them. More details on that will be posted as they emerge.
In other news, I recently purchased the domain name for this site, so navigation will no longer require the old .weebly.com address. It's just shoggothkinetics.com now. It wasn't really a cheap move, as it goes, but it felt like the right step.
That said, a number of small changes will be happening, including a host of updates that I will slowly be getting around to. My artist statement on the homepage really needs re-vamping if not total re-writing. The project titled "Problematic Objects; Disappointing Aliens" has recently undergone a name-change and last semester saw a major conceptual shift in how I talk about this body of work. Once I solidify some of the explanatory writing and re-shoot some of the older pieces (the paintings now total 10 and one of the original paintings has been altered), I'll get that updated.
I also think that producing fairly finished and fully-cited essays for this blog is too time-consuming if I want to post more regularly. It's just not possible to keep up a steady stream of content that meets such a high level of academic discourse--something that the sparse posting on this blog since the site's inception indicates. So, I'm probably going to shift to posting my thoughts-in-progress much more. I think the stakes are low enough with a blog that it won't make a difference to my readers (if I have many!) and this way I can post a lot more. I certainly write way more work than ever gets posted, mostly because up to this point I've been reluctant to post sketchy ideas and half-formed theses.
So expect a change in the length of posts and the depth to which they've been thought through. All this work is intended to form the nuclei of later pieces of writing, particularly for my MFA thesis. So, the "Notes on Hyperhorror" series will undergo a bit of a shift with lots more short, sketchy posts and less of the lengthy, fully-researched and -cited essays.
One of the foundational interests that drives my work (and keeps me up at night) is an interrogation of the notion of life. I specifically mean the unanswered questions that surround concepts that have developed for understanding life as a phenomenon. It seems fairly commonsense that there is a simple distinction between life and non-life, but deeper investigation reveals this distinction to be fuzzy at best. At worst, the division between animate beings and inorganic matter seems to disappear entirely under scrutiny (1). It is in trying to work through alternate ways of conceiving an ontology of living things within a material universe that I spend quite a bit of my creative energy. This is not an idle question. Indeed, the idea that there is a firm and unbridgeable divide between life and non-life is an intellectually maintained Western philosophical position with a very particular history and which presents many problematic implications for politics, ethics, and social action. In this brief essay I hope to outline a materialist position on the life-matter divide and offer some reasons why this question is important.
Let’s start with a little history. Much of our inherited thinking in the West on the idea of life is handed down to us from Descartes and Kant (2). It is to these two figures that we owe the idea of the unbridgeable divide between life and matter. In their formulations, life is precisely that which cannot be reduced to matter. Matter behaves mechanistically, and hence can’t exhibit the free animatedness thought to be a characteristic of living things only. Something different must be at work in the bodies of living things, something potentially nonmaterial. Not only this, but if living things are fundamentally different from ‘inert matter,’ then the human being presents a very special instance of the living thing, as fundamentally different from other life as life is from nonlife. While Kant himself hedged on these ontological categories (3), ultimately his thinking alongside other threads in Enlightenment humanism firmly established the notion of a self-grounding subject in Western thought: an unchangeable, ineffable, transcendent point-of-view which just happens to be exemplified by the figure of the human being. These notions created a rigid hierarchy for any ontology of the universe, with inorganic matter residing at the very bottom, living things standing above matter, the human being standing above all other living things, and with some groups of human beings standing above other human beings and over everything else. This hierarchy was a crucial justification for the domination and exploitation of planetary resources, plant and animal life, and marginalized groups of people by Westerners--domination and exploitation that has continued to the present.
It is ironic that Enlightenment humanism, and the figure of Kant in particular, undoes for Western thought the non-anthropocentric model of the universe provided by the Copernican revolution at the same time that Copernicus’s non-anthropocentrism would come to be a standard assumption for Western science (4). Life, it began to seem, could be explained more and more by mechanistic and materialistic models. Human beings, it began to seem, occupied a less and less significant position in the order of things. Yet, a number times throughout history, particularly in the nineteenth century (but by no means limited to the past), various attempts to preserve the difference between life and non-life resulted in ‘vitalist’ philosophies (5) Vitalism is the idea that some immaterial force must either be added to, or must be actively shaping ‘mere matter’ in order to make a body exhibit life. These vitalisms ranged from highly scientific investigations to completely spiritualist notions. What emerges is that these concepts of a matter-life divide, established in the seventeenth and eighteenth century have constantly reconstituted in Western thought, particularly in response to a scientific enterprise that seemed to contradict such ideas. Often, vitalist thinking was an intellectual move to preserve the primacy of the human in an increasingly nonhuman universe (6). Even within Western science, the division between life and non-life is generally conceived to be a solid fact, that, if not posing an unbridgeable gap, generally provides a stable set of categories for thinking about the universe.
The critical assumption that buttresses this history of thinking about life is the characterization of matter as ‘dead’, ‘inert’, or ‘purely mechanistic’. The question new materialists like myself (7) are asking is “what if matter is not dead, inert, or purely mechanistic?” What if matter is quite a bit different from our traditional way of thinking about it? Indeed, through the lens of a theory of ‘hyperhorror’, the question becomes what if matter is weird?
This idea of a weird materiality is where the world starts to become interesting again (and yes, it’s also where this essay gets interesting again). Weird matter is present but unpredictable. It is promiscuous in its encounters with human beings, but remains excessive to human thought. Characterized by ‘weirdness,’ it resists easy category, interacts in strange, complicated ways, and tangles together in unsanitary, dynamic meshes to change things in the universe. I’ll argue in a later essay that it is precisely this idea of matter as weird that underlies the most important fiction of pulp horror author Howard Phillips Lovecraft (8). Weird materialism does some radical things to thinking about the universe. On one end, it begins to gesture toward eliminating the need for any sort of transcendent outside to make things happen, whether that transcendence is a deity, deified human subjectivity, or some immaterial force shaping matter into living bodies. On the other end, it re-shapes the ontology of the universe from the bottom up, progressively collapsing all hierarchical positions into itself, without reducing anything to some monistic, essential substance. Weird matter gets to be fully differentiated and yet remain fully material.
There are two basic ways that this idea gets mobilized for me. First, the aforementioned collapse of hierarchical distinctions has consequences for an ontology of life. That is, life itself is composed of weird matter, with nothing needing to be added. Life can then be thought of as one strange manifestation of matter’s inherent weirdness. This means that as we imaginatively venture out of our comfortable categories, towards the frontiers of what we tend to think of as ‘the living world’, we confront a spectral border world of life behaving as if ‘mere matter’ and matter behaving as if alive, and some things, quite uncomfortably, seeming to do neither (9). We confront objects that confuse our distinctions--living bodies that advertise their sheer materiality in ways that jar our own natural sense of subjectivity and affectiveness, and material processes of a seemingly geochemical nature that nonetheless appear to organize in sophisticated, yet non-teleological ways. Ambiguity, uncanny dynamism, and vortical aggregation characterize this dark, sticky realm of unlife. Whatever life once was conceived to be, it now takes place as site and process, emerging in the interaction between teeming substances, or as a thermodynamic black market (10) for laundering energy in its entropic lurch towards an irreversible, static, cosmic cadaverosity.
When we attempt to flee these zones of spectral alien life and animate, pestilential geology, we find that this spectrality follows us. In the literal sense, life begins to be seen as existing on a spectrum of material interaction. It emerges as a distinct possibility that the phenomenon of life (and its corresponding category), while stable for the time being, may not even occupy an extreme end of that spectrum--there may be interactions beyond life as we know it, higher-order configurations of matter in elaborations of increasing complexity. This view begins to dissolve the familiar world of the living--mundane objects take on strange expressions of their own as we begin to suspect their weirder inner worlds. Animals, from insects to household pets reappear as cavorting agglutinations of uncanny matter. The human body begins to shift its shape, and behave in unpredictable ways as we suddenly see through its camouflage (11). Human culture and politics are recast as participations in massive, churning, unhuman planetary systems with their own ends in mind, completely indifferent to our intentions or our suffering (12). Even our vaunted, impregnable subjectivity disintegrates as we recognize that the masquerade of humanness is plagued by inconsistencies. In short, we begin to see the sludge, which brings me to my second mobilization of weird materialism.
Weird matter is entangled. The myriad swirling properties and withdrawn subterranean worlds of its teeming bodies don’t merely bump into each other in the universe. They are stuck together, pulling on each other. Weird matter has a corrosive aspect that exceeds and overwhelms categories and dissolves ontological hierarchies (13). But it has this additional property in that it is adhesive. Material bodies form aggregates that, in relation, produce shifting zones of agency that can affect and change things (14). No weird matter is free of this entangled state, everything is submerged. Radically different agents and entities can find themselves enmeshed in these unsanitary networks: geologic phenomena, local economies, bacterial agents, insect bodies, chemical actants, planetary surfaces, machine prosthetics, human beings and groups, climatological systems, plant populations, and mineralogical detritus. These aggregates can be truly described as cybernetic--assemblages of unlike things out of which agentic potential arises. These cybernetic assemblages swirl together in larger and larger aggregate systems, acting in concert, in conflict, in total indifference, but always submerged in this convecting, motile, heterogeneous sludge.
In such a sludge ontology, the articulations between matter and its ‘living’ subset are rendered completely continuous. No self-propelling agency can be left to the human actor, whose boundaries with the world are shown to be constantly dissolving, and whose entire makeup is shown to be a temporary agglutination of the material sludge shot through with sticky ties to countless other agents whose motivations and trajectories are ulterior at best. All human arenas, from media and culture to technology and politics, are recast as unintended conspiracies with radically unhuman agents producing tangential, spiraling, mediated effects--effects which often feed back into these vortical (15) systems rendering their stability or fluctuation a matter of stochastic caprice. Complexity becomes the defining characteristic, the mapping of which collapses human theorization into a roiling protoplasm of material recalcitrance. Life itself becomes nothing less than a willing and exuberant double-agent in the participatory manipulation of a massive, churning universe of clotted, duplicitous matter. The sludge flows, but there’s no progression, no overarching teleology to its tending. The sludge doesn’t discard primitive forms or favor any kind of advancement. It just churns, fully immanent, utterly distributed, with no abstract ideals residing in a transcendent beyond to ground its temporary arrangements. It generates through decay. The only discernible directionality is thermodynamic and that direction is toward eventual stillness and cold. But in the meantime, the sludge is restless. Energy is still in abundance. The vortices still turn. All manner of unseemly, and incomprehensible complications can arise. The universe can harbor anything in this material soup, and that might be one of the major horrors: with no outside, every alien alterity; every complex, multidimensional entity; every seething abysmal conglomeration; every obscure, untheorizable eruption is from here--from this universe--revealing the vast, unplumbed confines of cosmos we find ourselves in, and the staggering inadequacy of human knowledge and understanding.
All of this talk of the weird materiality of life and the mechanics of material sludge describes an essentially shoggothic conception of matter--the plasticity, mimesis, recalcitrance, multiplicity, complicity, ambiguity, dynamism, insurgency, and heterogeneity delineating a kind of shoggoth-kinetics. This weird materiality, this shoggothic kinesis, mobilizes against longstanding myths of the Western human being--obsessively hygienic, arrogant, and exploitative myths of human separateness, human transcendence, and human dominance. In the next essay, I’ll expound in greater detail upon the ecological commitments of such a weird materialism, and how the ethical engagement entailed can use the invertebrate animal as the test-site for navigating our weird obligations to the vast nonhuman world.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. Duke University Press. 2010.
Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost (eds.). New Materialisms. Duke University Press. 2010.
Jabr, Ferris. “Why Life Does Not Really Exist.” Scientific American Blogs. 2012. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/2013/12/02/why-life-does-not-really-exist/
Mackay, Robin (ed.). Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development. Volume VI. Urbanomic. 2010.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. Vintage. 1992.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Bloomsbury Academic. 2010.
Negarestani, Reza. Cyclonopedia. Re:Press. 2008
Schneider, Eric D. and Dorion Sagan. Into the Cool: Thermodynamics, Energy Flow, and Life. University of Chicago Press. 2005.
Shaviro, Steven. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism. University of Minnesota Press. 2014
Thacker, Eugene. After Life. University of Chicago Press. 2010.
Woodard, Ben. “A Nature to Pulp the Stoutest Philosopher: Towards a Lovecraftian Philosophy of Nature.” Real Horror. 2010. http://realhorror.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/ben-woodard-a-nature-to-pulp-the-stoutest-philosopher-towards-a-lovecraftian-philosophy-of-nature/#more-64
I recently did an interview with artist and illustrator Michael Bukowski who does the pretty awesome Yog-Blogsoth. His work is gaining notoriety and for good reason. He took some time to answer some questions I had about the project, and about his process in general, as well as his thoughts on HPL and his writing.
The interview is presented here in full, with light editing.
Shoggoth Kinetics: Could you talk a little bit about Yog-Blogsoth. How did you get started with the project and how long have you been at it?
Michael Bukowski: It started in a gestational form on a trip to Edinburgh with my brother in 2007. I was on the plane reading At the Mountains of Madness and it got to that part where HPL describes the Elder Things. I couldn't wrap my head around the paragraphs of anatomical details, so I started sketching while I read. Then, whenever as I read more, I kept thinking "Yeah everyone has illustrations of Cthulhu, but what about a Voonith?" Then I got asked to do a show at a venue here in Philly and I did maybe 20 pieces based on HPL's work and made some half size mini zines that I wanted to look like a cross between a D&D monster manual and an actual wizard's journal. The show and the zines sold out, but after that I kinda just sat on the idea until 2010. I wanted to start a blog that involved my artwork but I wanted it to stand out from my commission work so I decided to expand that project. The very first post on Yog-Blogsoth is my mission statement. I wanted to illustrate every creature and god HPL ever mentioned in his fiction and poetry. So, to answer your question (finally), I've been seriously working on the blog for 4 years, but the idea has been brewing for much longer.
SK: What draws you to monsters? Why do a sort of bestiary of anything-remotely-Lovecraftian?
MB: It probably has something to do with my obsessive nature. I like to organize and catalog things. I've also loved animals and dinosaurs since I was a kid. So, the bestiary is a great way to present these creatures in an organized manner. It's also really fun. Like reading some of these descriptions and trying to figure out a way these creatures could actually exist, or if they can't actually exist because the break the rules of physics, how do you portray that? One of my favorite creatures is the Byakhee from “The Festival”,
"There flapped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things ... not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor decomposed human beings, but something I cannot and must not recall."
So you've got to figure out which elements of each of those things go where and how do they fit together to make a cohesive being. It's real fun.
SK: The idea of categorizing or organizing these indescribable monsters is interesting. There are actually so many potential questions I could ask in response to this. In the sort of universe that HPL has us living in, do you think it’s ultimately possible for humans to categorize his monsters? Would they fit any classification scheme that humans could invent?
MB: That's a great question that has a complicated answer, haha. Yes and no. I think if this universe was a real thing and we inhabited it, we would NOT be able to comprehend these "creatures" if they even are describable as such. Some seem to take on the characteristics of elementals as we know them or pure energy. Most likely though, they're something altogether unknown to us and unimaginable. If something is so bizarre and otherworldly as to drive a person mad on sight, I'd say it's not something we could categorize. However, since we do live in a world where these stories are fiction, it's fun and interesting to try to portray and characterize these creatures. I'm also assuming we're talking about the Great Old Ones (another term of categorization). However, some of the less powerful creatures, the more traditional "monsters", were very describable for HPL and lend themselves to illustration/categorization. The creatures of the Dreamlands specifically. Ghouls, gugs, ghasts, dholes, moon-beasts, moon-cats, Lengians, all have ample descriptions. I guess just the idea that there are Great Old Ones, and then varying degrees of lesser beings all points to some desire to catalog and organize these beings. I think HPL hinted at it in his writings, Derleth ran with it and then the RPGs and subsequent mythos writers have cemented it.
I think it's important to note that much of the organization I do for the blog is purely for my own sake and shouldn't be taken as gospel. I think the mythos is fluid and beyond one solid interpretation. This is just how I interpret these things.
I don't know if that really answered your question but I'd say that professional and amateur fans have been trying to organize these creatures since HPL thought them up.
SK: One other question on this point: you draw them, attempt to give at least a solid visual form to these creatures. Do you ever actually try to fit them into some kind of monster taxonomy? as in organize them into distinct categories?
MB: I guess I have a loose categorization in my head. There are "creatures" that I envision like animals. So Deep-Ones, Tcho-Tchos, Spiders Of Leng are all in that set and they get smaller 4"x 6" drawings. Then there are the Gods. This includes the Great Old Ones (Dagon, Cthulhu, Chaugnar Faugn, Ithaqua, Shudde-M'ell) as well as what I refer to as the Old World Gods. These are all the references to world mythology that HPL makes (Buddai, Nodens, Charybdis, Kali, Mictlanteuctli) these all get 8"x 10" drawings. Finally there are the Outer Gods. These are the gods that are more like unfathomable energies than anything else. Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep and eventually Azathoth. Azathoth will be the last piece in the project that I do. The Outer Gods get drawings as large as they need to be to encompass their...splendor? haha
I've also had some problems figuring out where Nyarlathotep falls in this taxonomy but I think everyone's had that problem. I decided to make his Haunter Of the Dark avatar the main one and give that the Outer God treatment, while all other guises get the God treatment.
SK: Could you talk about your design process? How do you decide what a given monster, alien, god, or entity is going to look like? What sorts of references do you look at? (and if you do use references to design a creature, why do you choose the kinds of references you choose?)
MB: It depends really. The Yithians have a very exact description. Still, I did look at pictures of slugs and snails to get the "foot" how I wanted it. I also look at crabs and insects all the time to get claws to look cool. Also, insect, arachnid and crustacean anatomy is really complicated so I look pictures of those a lot. Macro pictures of mites and other insects are great. Basically I'm looking for something fantastic with a basis in the real world. I also pose for a lot of reference myself. Especially for the gods based in old world mythology. They're all humanoid. Some of them are more muscular so I look at body builders etc.
SK: I’m also kind of curious, do you think there will be an end point for Yog-Blogsoth? Will you draw all of the creatures directly created or written of or mentioned by HPL and then stop, or will you expand your project to include the creations of Lovecraft’s successors, like Bloch, Long, and Derleth, etc, in the same systematic way you've approached HPL?
MB: I do think there will be an endpoint. I'm actually getting pretty close to that time. I'm also talking to Niels and the other organizers of NecronomiCon '15 in Providence, and we're talking about the possibility of showing ALL the work I've done for the blog. That would theoretically be when the blog is done and my Azathoth will be "unveiled" at that show.
However, I think even though I'll have done all of HPL’s creations, I would love to move on to other authors that work within the mythos. I've been dying to illustrate some of Ramsey Campbell's creatures and deities. Talk about incomprehensible....read a description of Daoloth! Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith have some great creatures too. I'll definitely be keeping the blog alive post-HPL.
SK: Finally, and I know this is a bit of a loaded question, what about Lovecraft has drawn you to his work? You’ve got a whole blog dedicated to his monsters, so I think it’s fair to ask what your take is!
MB: I'm actually doing a post of a Karl Edward Wagner monster in December and I pulled a quote from him to go with the piece. It's a great summary of what I love about HPL:
"To my mind, what’s impressive about Lovecraft is his profound cosmic negativism: the idea that mankind is confronted by horrors that are completely beyond his comprehension, forces against which he is powerless, and when he begins to realize these horrors exist, they inevitably destroy him."
I do love his nihilism, his atheism, the fact that he created a mythos where all the creatures and stories cross reference. I LOVE that he opened it to other authors and Clark Ashton Smith will reference the Necronomicon or Robert E. Howard will create his own Unaussprechliche Kulten and then HPL will reference that in one of his stories. He also encouraged tons of budding weird fiction writers to keep doing what they were doing and improve it. I also love that, at a time when Weird Tales was full of werewolves and vampires he came along with "indescribable" monsters that sometimes required 4 paragraphs to lay out their alien anatomy.
I HATE his racism, class elitism and sexism. This has been a point of much debate recently because of the World Fantasy Award proposal. It's honestly shocking to me that anyone would debate it. It's factual that he was a racist and he seems like a pretty deplorable person. I love his fiction but there are aspects of it that are horrendous. Like “The Horror At Red Hook”, “Medusa's Coil”, “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” are all stories ABOUT the horrors of other races or tainted blood. I think any fan of his work comes to a point where they (hopefully) say to themselves "Well, that was cool story, but there are some troubling ideas in there. What's that all about?" And I think the most important thing we can do is talk about it. Talk about it, debate it, converse about and don't let it fade away. If you've read any of his letters you know HE sure liked to talk about it!
SK: You mention HPL’s shortcomings as a person. I absolutely agree he held some incredibly despicable views on politics, race, class, etc. But does Lovecraft also sometimes stop short with his good ideas? This is kind of a weird question. I’ll try to rephrase it; among Lovecraft’s good ideas, are there any that you feel he didn’t push far enough?
MB: I think the problem is that he doesn't stop short haha. He nailed the good things so well, that people try to overlook the bad. If he had really terrible ideas for his fiction (as opposed to his politics which worked their way into his fiction), everyone would've written him off as a jerk. But because he nailed that cosmic horror, nihilism, universe building and pure horror, those other things become unfortunate foibles.
I’m working on notes for a series of short essays and interviews examining the philosophical weirdness at the heart of many horror texts and how best to think about ‘weaponizing’ this weirdness. I’ve got some definite plans in the offing to interview at least two cool folks doing some cool things, an artist-illustrator and a fiction writer, respectively. I’m hoping to convince more people to submit to my interrogator’s chair, but we’ll see. I’m also going to do a number of case studies on texts which can serve as models for my ideas. I’m being really vague, I know, and that will be the big shortcoming of this first post, but hopefully things will get clearer later on. So here we go.
The problem: much horror fiction (fantasy or sci-fi, literature, film, video games, art, etc) tends to depend on novel phenomena which are easily deconstructed to reveal human-centric socio-cultural anxieties. For example, a deconstruction of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers easily reveals symbolized anxieties dealing both with the Cold War and with suburban American conformity. In this way, the speculative nature of the ‘horror’ effectively disappears. Many critics and writers will treat these interpretations of horror texts as totally exhaustive of the text itself, dismissing the weirdness that motivated the text in the first place (and which often remains in excess of the aforementioned interpretations). Banalized in this way, horror as a genre comes to serve a tepid role as ‘coping mechanism’ for ‘modern life's complexities.' In effect, the confrontation with the unknown, the potential philosophical raison d’etre of modern horror and science fiction, is occluded by more mundane surface reads.
It’s my contention that horror as a textual device, whether in film, literature, art, or other media, can better serve its speculative core. Indeed, in a contemporary context, our confrontations with nonhumans, with other species, with ecological degradation and catastrophe, and with the wider universe and the limits of human knowledge requires a restating of this speculative core.
The task is essentially simple: to construct the speculative aspect of fictive horror in such a way as to minimize the deconstruction of the ‘novel phenomenon’ into a metaphor or symbol for a historically specific sociocultural context. To be sure, it isn’t possible to completely eliminate these types of reads.. All writers and artists and thinkers exist in a historical context, and so will unconsciously absorb the social, political, and cultural anxieties of the time, as well as the central narratives which describe and reinforce those anxieties. Our work will always be susceptible to deconstruction to reveal these conditions and underlying preoccupations.
But, increasingly, the speculative dimension of philosophy that horror addresses is actually bumping up against our everyday lives. It is mixing with the social, with the political, and with the cultural. It is becoming increasingly relevant, even if most people are generally unaware. To take advantage of this, horror texts can be written in such a way that the confrontation with the unknown, the approach to the unhuman, the revealing of the outlines of a subterranean, planetary, nuomenal darkness are able to function as the central thematic struts. These things, if structured in the right way, can become what the story is really about, rather than thin veils for the sublimation of other anxieties. I would call this deliberate attempt “hyperhorror.”
From the outset I want to acknowledge that what I’m talking about is not new. I’m not laboring under the idea that I’m inventing a new genre of horror fiction or anything like that. What I’m arguing for is a certain resumption of the underlying project of horror as a cultural textual device. I’m not speaking of horror as a literary genre. I’m not talking about signs on bookstore shelves, or categories on web retail sites. I am careful not to limit the concept of horror to literature. It is an expansive textual device which can involve art, the internet, and video game craft, among other platforms. And at its foundation there is a feedback loop between literature, criticism, science, and philosophy which, in their reciprocal discourse, provides the meat and gristle for this enterprize as well as the tools to analyze and critique it.
Before ending this first short note I want to quickly define horror in its affective sense. And before I do even this, I do want to acknowledge that the vernacular definition for horror has shifted somewhat in the last 100 years or so. I’m not really a scholar in the field, but my impression is that the popular genre use of the word ‘horror’ now unofficially connotes the sensation more accurately described as ‘terror’. I won’t get into the problem (in our current sociopolitical context) of trying to reinstitute ‘terror’ as the proper genre title for this enterprise (try to imagine the public reception of something called ‘hyperterror’). So we’ll stick with horror, and simply point out that we don’t mean bodily disgust and fear of injury or death when we use the word.
For my purposes, the affective sense of horror in the context of hyperhorror is a general but acute feeling of fear or dread of a novel phenomenon (or phenomena) mixed with an awe of the scale, unfathomability, or utter alienness of the forces engendering the phenomena. At its best, a concept of hyperhorror should minimize moralizing the horror response: it should focus on the horror itself as neutral, resulting in a paralyzing hesitation, a simultaneous push and pull between profound realization and total incomprehension. Hyperhorror eliminates crude human actionables from the menu of human responses. All that we can do is watch and wait. It pushes the horror to a fever pitch while simultaneously demanding that its audience not reduce horror to ‘a bad thing that we can and should fight against.’
In the next short note, I want to briefly examine my own specific interests in hyperhorror as an artist, which are currently threefold: the creature, the ontology of life, and the recalcitrance of matter. Later on, we’ll look at some ‘model texts’ for my ideas -- works that can serve as jumping off points for pushing these ideas further.
I've submitted a proposal for the upcoming AAF conference taking place in Sydney, Australia early next year at the National Institute for Experimental Arts. Fingers crossed. The text of my proposal is below.
Project title: Econgeal
What does ecological knowledge “look like?” Based on background learning in biological science and validated and extended by the work of Timothy Morton, Eugene Thacker and others, the project I’d like to propose seeks to give visual form to the spatio-temporal collapse of the biosphere that results from contemplating current ecological thinking. The term "econgeal" implies a thickening or running together of ecology, a collapse in which every articulation of the living with itself is redrawn as continuous. Thus, all scales are flattened and their omnivalent/ambivalent complicity is revealed: pest, predator, disease, invader, saprophyte, opportunist, extremophile, colonizer, parasite, hive, all are maintained in an undifferentiated state. Simultaneously, bodies, cells, organs, meat, gristle, tissue, sensory apparatus, and empty space are elucidated in detail.
I see this work as functioning like a map, but one in which the overwhelming profusion of details and linkages engenders confusion, undermining itself as a useful model. In my attempt to create a ‘map of the world as big as the world’, I hope to posit something of a re-seeing of "the living" in a pre-classificatory sense in which nothing is particularly distinguishable and causal chains are linked in complex, intimate "meshes". One question that might emerge: are we looking at knowledge or its absence? Is there potential for a questioning of traditional aesthetic modes of seeing the world through simplified tropes (simply by proliferating them to an excessive degree)? Trying to see complexity, trying to encompass the whole world within the visual as it is privileged by human beings, may be shot through with contradictions and paradoxes; it may be beyond our perceptual abilities.
This proposal is for a large-scale drawing, approximately 9’ h x 3’ w, ink on paper. Installation to be achieved with neodymium magnets and metal, flat-headed push pins. Work on the image is currently underway. Progress shots are enclosed with the proposal.
Short artist bio:
Lucas Korte is a 2nd year MFA student in painting and drawing at the University of Notre Dame (USA). He holds a Bachelors degree in biology from Wayne State University (USA). His work is concerned with the unhuman, particularly through the lens of invertebrate animals. More work and writing can be found at shoggothkinetics.weebly.com. email firstname.lastname@example.org
arts educator, painter, drawist, heavy metal enthusiast, and long-time Lovecraft fan